The world of The Divergent Series offers one of the most unconvincing dystopian futures I've ever seen. If the world goes to hell, there are countless ways humanity might respond, but I'm pretty sure that “creating a society divided into factions that are based on personality type” isn't on the list. According to the conventional wisdom of this brave new world, most people fit into one of five particular categories: Dauntless, Erudite, Amity, Abnegation and Candor. Those who don't make the cut are given the dreaded title of “Factionless,” and are sent off into the wild to fend for themselves. However, every so often, the tests that makes these category determinations will find someone that fits into more than one category. These people are known as “Divergent,” and for some dumb reason, they're regarded as incredibly dangerous.
In the first film, our super-Divergent protagonist Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley, The Fault in Our Stars) managed to use her many talents to prevent the wicked Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet, The Reader) from committing an act of genocide. Naturally, this has made Tris even more of a target than ever before, so The Divergent Series: Insurgent begins with Tris hiding out on a farm in the middle of nowhere. It's a dull life, but at least she has her personality-free boyfriend Tobias (Theo James, Golden Boy) to keep her company. “How much longer do we have to stay here?” Tris asks, echoing the thoughts of the audience.
Unfortunately, Jeanine is more determined than ever to find Tris, not because she wants revenge (though she does), but because she has found a mysterious box that can seemingly only be opened by a Divergent. Not just any Divergent, mind you, but one who has mastered the skills of all five factions. The other Divergent folks who have tried to open the box have died, and Jeanine is convinced that Tris is her best hope. With remarkable speed, the ruthless Dauntless leader Eric Coulter (humanoid woodblock Jai Courtney, Terminator: Genisys) – who is now working on Jeanine's behalf – tracks Tris down.
Tris and Tobias flee, seeking refuge aboard a moving train filled with irritable Factionless passengers. A big dumb argument ensues, followed by an equally dumb fight scene. Eventually, everyone decides to put aside their differences for a while, especially once Tobias reveals that he's actually the son of notorious Factionless leader Evelyn Johnson-Eaton (an atypically flat Naomi Watts, The Impossible). Evidently, there's some complicated personal history between them, but right now, they need each other's help. The Factionless want to defeat Evelyn, and defeating Evelyn means that Tris will be safe.
At its core, Insurgent is more or less a chase movie, albeit an incredibly sluggish one. Like most modern blockbusters, it's utterly incapable of stripping itself down to the essentials, needlessly beefing up (and ultimately burying) the central story with tiresome subplots and a whole lot of teenage moping. Almost every YA adaptation is overstuffed with attractive, boring teenagers (or more likely, 20-something actors playing teenagers), but this series seems to have a special talent for finding the dullest young actors in the world. It's hard enough to keep up with who's who in this overstuffed movie, and even moreso when nobody manages to make an impression. Even the good actors are bad: Miles Teller (Whiplash) looks like he'd rather be doing anything else, and Winslet still doesn't seem to know what to do with the underwritten villain she's been asked to play. To her credit, she doesn't opt for hamminess, but the performance only contributes to the film's flavorlessness.
Though director Neil Burger managed to bring some degree of visual flair to Divergent, Robert Schwentke's follow-up looks entirely anonymous. The big special effects sequences are mostly limited to a series of hallucinatory simulations Tris is required to endure in the second half, and there's a fairly dispiriting lack of imagination on display in these scenes. Rather than creating a visually compelling portrait of a fragmented artificial reality, Scwentke leans heavily on a bland “everything shatters into pieces” effect (cue memories of Snow White and the Huntsman) and offers the 347,282nd big-screen portrait of a large city being destroyed. Are we that desperate to have images of mass destruction to stick in ad campaigns?
Throughout Insurgent, it's hard to escape the feeling that everyone involved knows this is just a paycheck project. Woodley was the best thing about Divergent, giving 110% to a film that really didn't deserve it. Here, she merely does what she needs to do and leaves it at that. These movies are profitable, but they aren't good, and everyone seems to be aware of that this time around (which only makes things worse). As current YA franchise rules demand, the third and final book in the series is being split up into two parts. Given Insurgent's bloated blandness, I propose that we whittle them down to a single 20-minute short film and call it a day.
The Divergent Series: Insurgent
Rating: ★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 119 minutes
Release Year: 2015